Tag Archives: Carolina Panthers

Why the NFL is still a long way from having a London franchise

“This is definitely if not the, then one of the best stadiums I’ve ever been in my life.”

Those were the words of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr following his team’s 24-21 victory over the Chicago Bears in the first-ever NFL match played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“Playing at Wembley was really cool, with the memories and all the different games that have been played there,” the Raiders star continued.

“But being able to play here and being able to see what could be done. It’s amazing that they could do all this. First class.”

Being in the stadium a week later to watch the Carolina Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-26 in a hotly-contested AFC South matchup, you could understand Carr’s praise.

While Wembley, and previously Twickenham, have provided fine venues for the NFL’s annual International Series, they had an exhibition-type feel, despite them hosting competitive, regular season matches.

The difference at Tottenham was huge. This felt like a proper NFL stadium.

Having been to the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, home to both the New York Giants and Jets, you could tell it was modelled on US stadia and built with American football in mind.

Every detail left both players and coaches alike expressing nothing but positivity. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said: “The amenities in terms of the locker room, the way the locker room is set up, structure as far as the training room, the hydrotherapy room for the guys, it’s top-notch. Whatever they did, they did it right.”

The video, played on the big screen, of the pitch being changed in preparation for the visitors from across the pond underlined the feeling that this state-of-the-art arena has finally given the NFL a home in London.

The incredible transformation of Tottenham’s new stadium from Premier League to NFL

Franchise ready

Over the past five years, talk of London getting its own NFL franchise has only increased. 31 of the 32 teams will have played in London following the end of this season, with the Green Bay Packers the only team yet to do so, and they are likely to make the trip within the next few years.

There are many reasons why British fans should be hopeful that the dream of getting their own team could one day become a reality, with of course the main one being Tottenham’s new stadium.

“I remember running out of that tunnel, I was psyched to play here because it was packed to the brim”

– Panthers QB Kyle Allen enjoyed his time in London

However, a stadium is nothing without fans to fill it – and London certainly has them. Both games at Tottenham were sell-outs; every game played in the capital since the first competitive game was played here in 2007 has been at least 90% full, and there are now 47,000 season ticket holders, who purchase tickets to every match played in the city each year.

The strong support certainly didn’t go unnoticed amongst the players, with Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen remarking: “It was a really cool stadium. Packed to the brim. I remember running out of that tunnel, I was psyched to play here because it was packed to the brim, man. Fans were loud, stayed the whole game, rain or shine. It was a good experience.”

This support has led to four games being played in London this year, although it remains to be seen if this level of appetite could be maintained over the eight home games which a franchise would play here.

But one thing which remains without doubt is the appetite for the sport in the UK. Walking to the stadium, you could count jerseys of almost every one of the 32 teams in the league. The vast majority of those in attendance clearly knew their stuff about the sport.

The NFL estimates it has around 13 million fans in the UK, with four million of those described as “avid”. This would suggest there is more than enough interest for a franchise to not only be a success but grow and its stars become household names amongst British sports fans.

Who could move?

However, whilst the city certainly has the fanbase, and now the stadium to boot, there are issues which mean the franchise dream may not be as close to coming to fruition as some supporters hope.

The major reason why it seems some way off is that no owner seems overly keen to relocate their team overseas, at least not imminently.

The NFL has long since ruled out expanding the league – the current format of 32 teams, split into eight divisions of four, works perfectly. There is no space to add one more team, and any expansion efforts would require probably eight new teams to want to join the league at the same time, something not considered realistic.

The only chance for a London franchise would be for a current team to move from their home in America to the UK. The Jacksonville Jaguars seem the most likely of any to make a permanent move across the Atlantic.

Should the NFL decide a London team is a necessity, it would almost certainly be the Chargers it would attempt to move

In 2013, the team agreed to play one home game every year in the British capital, an agreement which runs out in 2020 but is likely to be extended. Their owner Shad Khan also owns Fulham Football Club, and last year attempted to purchase Wembley Stadium, before pulling out after he was advised the Football Association would reject his offer.

While Khan denied the motive behind his bid was to secure a London home for his Jaguars, there can be little doubt that was a factor behind his attempt to buy English football’s HQ.

While for many teams the idea of relocating to another city in America, never mind another country, would be madness, the Jaguars are not one of them. The team joined the league in 1995, but since then have made the playoffs just seven times, and only once since 2008.

So far in 2019, they rank 26th in terms of their average attendance. Relative to other teams in the league, they are a small franchise who are also towards the bottom of the league in terms of financial revenue.

Khan nevertheless seems content with the current arrangement, which allows the Jaguars to build their support in London through playing there every season while continuing to play seven matches in Jacksonville. The team would likely look to increase the number of games played in the capital before making any decision on moving.

The only other team where a strong case for moving to London could be made is the Los Angeles Chargers, who have failed to attract much of a fanbase since their move from San Diego in 2017. They currently play in a 30,000-capacity arena but will move to the 70,000-capacity SoFi Stadium in 2020, which they will share with the LA Rams.

Should the NFL decide a London team is a necessity, it would almost certainly be the Chargers it would attempt to move, although there is no chance of them switching before they have had a few years at their new stadium to see whether they can generate a fanbase in LA.

Stumbling blocks

The other major issue which is yet to be fully worked out is scheduling. The NFL have experimented with having teams play the week after a trip to the UK, but in the majority of cases they are given a bye week.

Mark Waller, the NFL executive vice president of international and events, is optimistic, however: “We’ve proven all the logistical variables now. Last year we played three games on consecutive weekends. That was an important test for us because in the event we ever did have a franchise in London, it’s likely our schedule would be blocks of three or four games, then three or four games over in the States so the team wasn’t travelling every other week.”

This is an important point, given the London franchise would be unlikely to be competitive were they flying back and forth every week. However, the issue of competitiveness remains.

Waller added: “The one thing we can’t ever test for unfortunately is, if you have a team based in London, could it be competitively successful over time when it’s travelling significantly more than any other team?”

Teams in the NFL are used to travelling large distances, such as from east to west coast and vice versa, but they are not making these trips regularly during the season and they are usually spread out across 17 weeks of the campaign. This is clearly an issue the league would need to consider before bringing a team to London.

Map showing the current NFL teams

Another issue would be the play-offs. Were a British franchise to earn a home post-season match, it could be seen as them having an unfair advantage, with the opposing team having to travel such a great distance.

With games likely to be played in blocks of four at home then away, the team would also need to factor in the need for a training base in the US, as they wouldn’t be flying back to London after every away trip.

This could turn into a positive, however, as they would probably be able to attract more players to join the franchise who may have been put off by having to live in a foreign country for half the year, as they’d probably only be there for about two-and-a-half months.

It’s clear London now have a stadium, and they’ve always had the fans, but what is also clear is there are several hurdles that need to be jumped before the city finally lands its own team. But with the success of the London games year-on-year, it looks only a matter of time before a franchise makes the trip for good.

Main photo by Harry Currall

On The Road With My NFL Team

Going on the road to watch your team in the NFL is a strange thing.

As with all the major sports in the USA, the distance between each team can be anything from sharing the same stadium, to travelling almost 3,000 miles across a single country and multiple states.

But the main difference is that the NFL is king in America, and travelling to see your team play away from home is more like a pilgrimage; it’s taken very seriously. And I didn’t realise that fully, until I flew from London to Charlotte to see my NFL team – the Green Bay Packers – play the Carolina Panthers away from the team’s home field.

The Panthers aren’t the most storied team in the NFL, having formed as part of the League’s expansion in 1995, but its fan base are about as passionate as the rest, despite it needing a bit of growth. Bank of America Stadium is also a really cool place to catch a game, if a little generic for a downtown stadium.

It seems to suit the team, the structure is new, and exciting, but lacks any character gained from a lengthy history.

None of that mattered though, as joining the thousands of Packers fans outside – who had also travelled an incredible distance to see the team play – made Charlotte feel like the streets surrounding Lambeau Field back in Wisconsin, proving that Pack fans really know how to make anywhere in the USA feel like a home from home.

Small market, big support

“Oh yeah, if the Packers come to town it’s always the biggest game for us,” said Adrian Green, a sales assistant at a sports retail store local to Bank of America Stadium.

“They just come in droves and it’s actually a real positive for our business round here. I mean, even the Panthers’ rivalry games don’t attract the same sort of support as the Packers, wherever they play, it seems like the entire fanbase converges on the city.”

IMG_8709
Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium

And he really wasn’t joking, as the tailgating scene surrounding the stadium was littered with people of all ages donning ‘Green and Gold’.

“Oh, it was only a 14 hour drive down,” said one Wisconsinite in a worn-out Packers jersey, while grilling a bratwurst beside his truck. “We try and do one game a year outside of Green Bay, it’s just really fun to see new places and cheer on the team as a road warrior.”

The pre-game festivities have become an essential part of every NFL gameday now, as everyone meets up and parties in the huge parking lots or bars near the stadium.

Back in Green Bay, Lambeau Field is quite segregated from the rest of Wisconsin and its major cities Madison and Milwaukee. It’s a small town, in the middle of an agrarian part of America; so gameday is a day which eight times a year, brings everyone together in celebration of the smallest market in the league.

Tailgating in the middle of a city is so different. Charlotte is very much cosmopolitan, and densely populated, so the areas where fans party are tightly packed and spread out. It didn’t detract from the experience though, as per usual, I was constantly offered all manner of food and drinks when walking around, between the various set ups soaking it all in.

“Has the game started yet?” one fan asked me. “No,” I replied. “There’s still an hour until kick-off.”

“Brilliant,” he said. “More time for beer!”

Warm welcomes

The atmosphere in the stadium was also a friendly one. Whether it’s just a ‘Southern Hospitality’ thing or not, it was really encouraging to see both Panther and Packer fans alike cheering, chatting and sharing the game experience together.

There’s no segregation in America, which to a UK fan may seem very alien, but out in the US it’s normal. I didn’t have to be quiet when the Packers scored – partly because there were so many of our fans, and partly because Panthers fans were very accommodating.

“American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture”

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shouted louder during a game, despite being surrounded by fans wearing black and blue jerseys. The Packers started strong, but played awfully after leading at the end of the first Quarter. Until the final 15 minutes of regulation, Carolina were firmly in control, leading by three scores, but the Packers battled back and made for one of the more exciting finishes to a football game I’d ever seen.

Down just one score with two minutes to go, Green Bay’s Demerious Randall intercepted Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton to give the Packers extremely favourable field position for one last shot at victory.

The section I was in erupted, with a unique mixture of groans and jubilation. I’ll never forget jumping up and down, screaming and high fiving all the fellow fans around me. What seemed like a foregone conclusion at halftime was suddenly turned on its head; I guess that’s the sort of drama which gets so many people make the trips to opposing teams’ stadiums.

Incredible experience

In the end it wasn’t meant to be though, as the Packers turned the ball over just a few yards from the score. My team, our team, Wisconsin’s team, had lost; and it was somehow gut-wrenching, despite all of us having accepted defeat seemingly hours before the game’s conclusion.

Those of us wearing green were left with long journeys home ahead of us, including an eight-hour flight back to London for me.

But it was worth it. Seeing the NFL for what it really is behind the TV screen, and in its native country is always an incredible experience.

American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture, because it’s always such a great experience for families, as much as die-hard fans; it’s closer to Bundesliga, than it is Premier League.

“Better luck next time,” one of the Panther fans said on the way out of the stadium. “You guys are good, and we’re just riding high. See you in the playoffs hopefully? It’ll be a great game!

“Oh, and thanks for making the trip,” he added just before turning an opposite way to us onto the street outside the gates. “You guys made the atmosphere special today.”